Moriya and Ariya Jutanugarn (Photo credit to LPGA)
With the 50th edition of the ANA Inspiration officially underway, 2020/21 LPGA Tour rookie Paphangkorn "Patty" Tavatanakit rose to the top of the 119-player field in Rancho Mirage, Calif., to lead by one stroke at -6 in her third appearance at the major championship.
Her bogey-free 66 was her career-best 18-hole score at Mission Hills Country Club and her best round since a third-round 66 at the Gainbridge LPGA.
“It was a pretty calm and relaxing day today. I just stuck to my game plan and didn't get too greedy out there. I know it's a major, it's tough, the course is really tough,” said Tavatanakit. “I was just being really patient and I was waiting for putts to drop, and they did on the back nine.”
The 21-year-old started the day with two birdies on her front nine, picking up the pace at the turn and closing with four birdies in her last six holes. Tavatanakit, who has never led or co-led after the first round before in her young LPGA Tour career, said she’s still processing what it takes to continue grinding toward the top of the leaderboard.
“Today, even though it's a 6-under, it was not a perfect golf. It was, I mean, a lot out there, but I would take that any day. Golf is not a perfect sport,” said Tavatanakit, who has already earned a top-five and top-15 finish this season. “I feel like just growth into being in contention and just keep learning, keep being in it. Eventually like I'll be able to finish it out. It doesn't have to be this week. I have a long career ahead of me, and I'm just going to keep playing the way I'm playing.”
The 2019 ANA Inspiration low amateur isn’t running away with the competition just yet, with Tour winners and major champions hot on her heels. Fellow Tour rookie Leona Maguire and 2012 KPMG Women’s PGA champion Shanshan Feng sit one stroke back in a tie for second at -5. Feng, playing in her first event since the 2019 CME Group Tour Championship, carded a first-round 67 and said she had little expectations in her first round back on Tour.
“Last year was a difficult year for everybody, and I just made a decision at the middle of the year to go back to China and maybe take some time off with my friends and family at home. And I really enjoyed the whole time over there, but of course I missed play. So I started to practice like maybe a few months ago. Tried to come back little earlier but I couldn't because on the visa,” said Feng. “I would say that I'm mentally very fresh because this is my first tournament in, I don't know, 13, 14 months I guess. So I am mentally very fresh and I feel like my body is maybe back to like 25. Not quite 18, but back to maybe like 25, so able to get through the 18. I'm feeling good.”
Megan Khang, who recorded her first sub-70 round at the ANA inspiration with her 68, is tied with Ariya Jutanugarn, Moriya Jutanugarn and Anna Nordqvist for a share of fourth. Defending champion Mirim Lee is among eight players in a tie for eighth at -3 and said she didn’t have too many nerves as she made her way through the Dinah Shore Tournament Course.
“It was great today and then I play better. I play better and then I had couple like miss shot, but I made lots of par and then birdies,” said Lee. “Putting is good and then irons, irons better, and then still drives is a little bit challenge but not bad.”
Michelle Wie West, competing in her first major championship since the 2019 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and giving birth in 2020, carded a first-round 70 and is T16 along with 14 other players.
“We came into the day like, okay, no stress today, easy golf, and the first couple holes were not easy golf. So I am just happy to see my name on the first page of the leaderboard. That's really special to me. Been a long time since I've seen that,” said Wie West, who recorded four birdies and two bogeys on Thursday. “It was fun today making putts out here. I have a lot of great memories, my first one being 18 years ago. I was kind of looking back yesterday. This place a really special to me and I'm just glad to be here. What a great day.”
MAJOR LPGA HOMECOMING FOR SHANSHAN FENG
Nov. 24, 2019. It has been 494 days since Shanshan Feng last teed it up in an LPGA Tour event, thanks to a season lost from the pandemic. With the option to skip the season and not lose her LPGA Tour status, Feng, the 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, spent a year at home in the People’s Republic of China, enjoying time with her friends and family and living a quiet life.
But in recent months, the urge to get back on the course grew. Feng pulled the clubs back out a few months ago and after finally getting a U.S. visa, she rejoined the LPGA Tour with a bang, carding a bogey-free 67 in Thursday’s first round of the ANA Inspiration, the first major of the professional golf season.
“ANA was the earliest I could make and I'm so glad that I can be here,” said Feng after the round. “Doesn't matter how I really played. My goal was to actually enjoy the whole process, whole time on the course with my boss – I mean my caddie, Mercer (Leftwich) – and also my teammates in the group. So I really enjoyed the whole time.”
The self-proclaimed “old rookie” didn’t show many signs of rust on Thursday, cruising around the Dinah Shore Tournament Course alongside Nelly Korda and Mel Reid. Reid’s caddie, Ryan Desveaux, recounted a classic Shanshan story, saying the jokester cried “bye bye ball” as an errant tee shot came oh-so-close to the water on No. 6.
As usual, Feng brushed off the down points and focused on the many positives to take from her grand return to play.
“I know what it takes to play well in the tournament, and I really did work to get my distance back because I did lose some distance,” said Feng. “At the same time, just commit to myself to say, ‘Hey, even though maybe I'm not as long as the other girls are,’ but actually the course plays shorter that way because my balls release so much.”
But the pressing question remains – with no golf on her schedule, how did Feng spend the last year and a half? Well, even major champions struggle with finding ways to pass the time. And as happens to so many of us, the answer nearly inevitably is edible.
"After you get up, you think about what you want to eat for breakfast. After breakfast, you think about what you want to eat for lunch. Then after lunch, you think about what you want to eat for dinner. Just boring life,” said Feng, followed by her trademark bellow of laughter.
LEONA MAGUIRE BRINGS THE HEAT IN THE DESERT
“It was nice to start birdie, birdie and get some momentum heading into the round.”
Leona Maguire started the 2021 ANA Inspiration like she never left Riverside County. Seven months ago, the 2019 Symetra Tour graduate captured a T18 result at Mission Hills Country Club and rekindled the momentum today. Over her last three competitive rounds on the Dinah Shore Tournament Course, Maguire is 12-under par following a 5-under 67 this afternoon.
“I finished strong over the weekend last year. Came here for the first time as an amateur [in 2016] when I was still in college. It’s just a fun place,” said Maguire, who hit 12 greens in regulation on Thursday. “It is a really good test. You have to drive the ball well, hit your irons in the right places. It’s nice to come back to a course that I’ve been to before and did well on last year.”
The demands of this course and this major championship no doubt suit Maguire’s eye. Combine that with the work she has focused on in practice leading up to events and her offseason training, the 26-year-old seems to have cemented a formula for success in her 13th career major start.
“I have been working really hard on my wedges, so relying on them and playing to my strengths [there],” Maguire said. “I added some yardage over the winter as well. It’s interesting to see some of the numbers into greens we had last year compared to this year. Definitely helps going in with a little bit of a shorter club into the greens, especially when they’re so firm. Helps the ball stop and you can get close to some of the pins rather than having to play a little bit more conservative like I have in the past.
“A lot of gym work and some speed work with my coach [over the winter]. Changed to the new Ping 425 driver and changed shafts on my irons as well, back to the graphite KBS shaft. There was plenty of protein and all that. Kinetica is one of my sponsors, sports nutrition company, so they helped as well.”
EUBANKS: TAVATANAKIT PERFORMANCE NO SURPRISE TO THOSE WHO KNOW HER
It surprises no one who knows her. Unfortunately, that is still a relatively small number of people.
Patty Tavatanakit, the 21-year-old second-year rookie out of UCLA, shot a ho-hum 6-under 66 on Thursday at the Dinah Shore Tournament Course to take an early first-round lead over an impressive list of contenders, including Shanshan Feng and Rolex Rankings No.1 Jin Young Ko. Those who have watched Patty T., as she’s known informally, said, “Of course she did.” This is, after all, a player who won three times on the Symetra Tour in 2019; a player who is so powerful and physically gifted that she can almost overpower a course; and a player who, playing on a sponsor’s exemption at the 2019 Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic as a 19-year-old, shot a tournament record 11-under 61.
Still, with the abbreviated 2020 schedule and a lot of players choosing to stay in their home countries for most of last year, many of her LPGA Tour peers (and a fair number of fans) are seeing her or perhaps hearing her name for the first time.
On Tuesday, for example, Jin Young Ko walked over and introduced herself to Patty on the 10th tee. The two had signed up for a practice round at the same time. A minute later, Ko hit a hybrid into the middle of the fairway and was surprised to turn around and see Patty at the back of the tee box with a driver in her hand. A second later, Patty blasted a towering tee shot that was barely on its way down when it cleared a bunker 250 yards downrange. Ko’s eyes widened and she looked back at her caddie as if to ask, “Who on earth is this?”
The world will know soon enough. Tavatanakit is the real deal, a player who reached every par-5 on Thursday, three with irons and one with a 3-wood. On the 18th, she didn’t hesitate to pull 6-iron from 175 despite being in the rough. Strength and a ball-flight that would bring a smile to Rory McIlroy’s face makes those kinds of decisions easier. Patty hit her second shot to 10 feet and barely missed a closing eagle.
“It's pretty much a long par-4,” Patty said. “I just wanted to hit the green. I don't care about anything else. It's a pretty wide green and I had a 6-iron, so it's always nice to have a higher ball flight into that green. I was able to stop it just about pin high.”
Watch her in person and you can’t believe that you haven’t heard of her. But she’s young. The performances haven’t matched up with the gifts so far. Patty only had one top-10 in 2020 to go with seven missed cuts and more ups and downs than the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway. So far in 2021, she’s had a T5 at the Gainbridge LPGA at Lake Nona in Florida but missed the cut by a mile last week at the Kia Classic.
“Basically, it’s still my rookie year so there is a lot to learn,” she said on Thursday after her 66. “Everyone is good out here, so you have to show a lot of respect to the other players, too. It's not like, oh yeah, I dominate the course. I still have to execute. I still have to hit good shots. I still have to play smart. I can’t ever get ahead of myself out there because literally anyone could shoot low numbers and sneak up there really quickly.”
SIRAK: MICHELLE WIE WEST TURNS BACK TIME AT ANA INSPIRATION
This is where it all began for Michelle Wie West, so it’s the perfect place to resume the story. At just 13, the hard-hitting Hawaiian with the silky-smooth swing tied for ninth in the 2003 ANA Inspiration. Nearly two decades later and two years removed from competition, she dazzled with a 2-under 70 Thursday as the 50th anniversary ANA began.
Wie West, who missed the cut last week at the Kia Classic in her first competition since June 2019 following maternity leave and COVID-19, trails Patty Tavatanakit’s 66 by four strokes. Wie West’s game has always felt at home at Mission Hills, site of six of her 14 top-10 finishes in majors, including runner-up in the 2014 ANA, the same year she won the U.S. Women’s Open. Wie West didn’t have her best stuff on Thursday, but her up-and-down game bailed her out time and again.
After going out in even-par 36 – one birdie and one bogey – she ripped off three birdies in a row, beginning on No. 1 – her 10th hole of the day. Except for a short miss for par on No. 6, her putter was rock-solid all day.
“I am just happy to see my name on the first page of the leaderboard,” Wie West said, her smile as radiant as in 2003. “That's really special to me. Been a long time since I've seen that. I have a lot of great memories, my first one being 18 years ago. This place a really special to me.”
In that 2003 ANA, Wie West shocked the cynics by remaining in contention into the back nine of the final round. Then on No. 11, she had a 15-foot eagle putt that would have pulled her within one-stroke of the lead. But a three-putt exposed the inexperience of youth and she made four more bogeys to close with a 76.
Still, the exuberance of her youth won hearts while the maturity of her game garnered respect. On the week, she averaged 286.3 yards off the tee – best in the field.
“It feels weird,” Wie West said about the memories of 2003. “You know, looking back, I was a kid. I still feel like a kid. Having a baby definitely puts a different perspective on everything. I'm more excited to go home and see her than I was about my round, to be honest.”
Rolex Rankings No. 103 Patty Tavatanakit (66)
Rolex Rankings No. 129 Leona Maguire (67)
Rolex Rankings No. 35 Shanshan Feng (67)
Rolex Rankings No. 49 Megan Khang (68)
Rolex Rankings No. 43 Moriya Jutanugarn (68)
Rolex Rankings No. 26 Ariya Jutanugarn (68)